I was reading a piece of writing advice the other day about five clichés that ruin openings. I agreed with four of them, but either I don’t understand the fifth cliché the author was describing, or it’s simple wrong advice. The gist was, “don’t begin with the weather because no one gives a crap about the weather.”
First, I’m not sure that weather can actually be a cliché in the way “it was all a dream” is. I mean, weather is only a cliché in the sense that it’s always there. It’s reality rather than cliché. Second, maybe it’s because I grew up on a farm but I do indeed give a crap about the weather. In fact, almost everyone does and that would explain why it’s one of the major topics of conversation. Third, unless your story takes place fully inside a place with complete environmental controls and no windows, such as a spaceship, weather will be a part of a realistic story. Fifth, quite a few of my favorite opening sequences in literature incorporate weather. Give a listen:
“In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains. In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels. Troops went by the house and down the road and the dust they raised powdered the leaves of the trees. The trunks of the trees too were dusty and the leaves fell early that year and we saw the troops marching along the road and the dust rising and leaves, stirred by the breeze, falling and the soldiers marching and afterward the road bare and white except for the leaves.” Hemingway—A Farewell to Arms.
“October Country . . . that country where it is always turning late in the year. That country where the hills are fog and the rivers are mist; where noons go quickly, dusks and twilights linger, and mid-nights stay. That country composed in the main of cellars, sub-cellars, coal-bins, closets, attics, and pantries faced away from the sun. That country whose people are autumn people, thinking only autumn thoughts. Whose people passing at night on the empty walks sound like rain. . . .” Ray Bradbury—The October Country.
Or: “Heat beat down on my shoulders, my face cloth. My armor dragged at the riding sores underneath. Little sparkles danced behind my eyelids, and the strain in my joints were cramping to knots in my muscles. It had been a long ride. A grating call made my shoulders twitch. The carrion crows, who glided after us day after day, were waiting.” Heather Gladney—Teot’s War.
I stopped with these three in order to keep this post to a manageable length. There are many other examples I could give. Now, if the opening were ‘only’ a lengthy description of the weather, I would want the writer to move on. But, what I need from a story is to be immediately, or at least very quickly, “grounded.” I want to know “who” and “where.” If the story is taking place outside, a huge part of “where” is likely to involve weather.
As a reader, the surest way for a writer to lose me is to open with talking heads in a vacuum. Now there is truly something I don’t give a crap about. I’d rather it were all a dream.